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The Future of an Illusion

Stephen Marche’s The Next Civil War is a thought experiment imagining the ‘two Americas’ decisively parting ways.

Jacob Chansley, also known as the 'QAnon Shaman,' screams 'Freedom' inside the US Senate chamber during the Capitol insurrection on 6 January 2021 in Washington, DC. (Win McNamee / Getty Images)

The slew of books about the polarisation of US politics have tended, on the whole, to be solution-oriented, diagnosing the malady in order to peddle the cure: more often than not, the prescription is a strong dose of wonkish centrism, delivered in a woolly rhetoric of unity and shared values. What if, however, the crises of recent years were not just a blip, but the first stage in a terminal schism? What if the political problems faced by the United States today are, in fact, objectively intractable? Is the disintegration of the Untied States, as we have hitherto known it, inevitable? These are the questions posed by the Canadian journalist Stephen Marche in his provocatively titled book, The Next Civil War.

Marche believes the US is entering ‘a period of radical instability’ characterised by ‘hyper-partisanship, the bifurcation of the country into blue and red, the violent loathing for the federal government, the economic unsustainability, the incipient crises in the food supply and urban environmental security, the rise of the hard-right anti-government patriot militias’. The problem is not only that the mainstream consensus is crumbling, but also that the country’s existing institutions are ill-equipped to resolve the antagonisms and contradictions that riddle the body politic. The Supreme Court, Marche writes, is ‘a collection of partisan hacks, like any other branch of the US government’; the electoral college is a grotesque anachronism, as a result of which ‘The federal system no longer represents the will of the American people’; the ‘delirious sentimentality’ with which the US Constitution is sacralised by Americans of all political hues, 240 years after it was written, makes meaningful reform incredibly difficult. In short: ‘The country no longer makes sense.’

The chief beneficiary of this crisis is the hard right, which comprises a ‘buffet of sensibilities’, encompassing ‘white power, Christian identity, the inviolability of the Second Amendment, tax loathing, the belief in the illegitimacy of the federal government.’  What unites groups such as the Boogaloo movement, QAnon, the KKK and the estimated 300,000 self-styled ‘sovereign citizens’ who refuse to file their taxes each year is that their purported love of their country manifests as extreme hatred of its government. The so-called doctrine of interposition, not recognised in US law but an article of faith among anti-government die-hards, permits state governors to reject the authority of the federal government in certain circumstances if they believe it is acting in an unconstitutional manner. Marche speculates that the trigger incident for a hard right separatist uprising could be something as banal as a dispute over infrastructure: the federal government tries to close a dilapidated bridge in order to fix it, and a local sheriff prevents them from doing so; the situation escalates from there.

When Marche writes that ‘The left . . . makes up the majority of the country, and they have . . . 70 percent of the national GDP’, ‘the left’ denotes the liberal, pro-government side broadly conceived:  the conflict he’s imagining here isn’t so much right vs left as hard right vs everyone else. In a country with 400 million guns in circulation, it could get very bloody indeed. As we know from the long history of failed US occupations, the government’s overwhelming military strength would be no guarantee of political success in the long haul: ‘The question . . . is not necessarily whether the United States would survive but whether it would be recognizable afterward.’

The Next Civil War is a hybrid work, blending essay, reportage and creative writing. Marche attends a Prepper and Survivalist Summit in Ohio and a gun show in Oklahoma; he interviews extremism experts, climate change think-tankers, retired generals, a senior activist from Black Lives Matter, the CEO of a Civil War museum and separatist activists in Texas and California. This extensive picking of brains is interspersed with snippets of speculative fiction to help us imagine how things might play out: one involves an army general confronting an anti-government uprising; another concerns a disaffected young loner turned would-be assassin; a third is about two sisters whose lives are disrupted by climate catastrophe. It’s a slightly eccentric format, but makes for compelling reading.

Marche suggests, somewhat glibly, that the creation of a breakaway country would be something of a win-win, insofar as ‘The Union, as it stands, is preventing both sides from becoming the people they want to be’: a new Confederacy ‘could re-create itself as a Christian nation, banning abortion and gay marriage outright. It could permit no restriction on any weaponry [whereas the North] could enact meaningful policies on health care, police reform, gun control, and the environment.’ Perhaps the biggest question would be: who gets to keep the name?

All of this may strike some readers as far-fetched. Is there anything in it? It’s true that, in recent years, US politics has felt like a zero-sum struggle for the cultural and political soul of a nation: ‘Blue America and Red America represent two styles of life, the mostly white and rural against the mostly multicultural and urban.’ Marche notes that the sense of a siege mentality on both sides is calcifying in geographical terms, as Americans choose to live and work in places best suited to their cultural-political dispositions—a trend which broadly correlates with ethnic identity. Particularly in the wake of recent overturning of Roe vs Wade, it’s hard to argue with Marche’s assertion that ‘America is becoming two Americas, Americas that hate each other, that don’t speak to each other.’ To preach compromise, at this stage, feels futile if not naïve.

Any yet the US has always been in some sort of crisis, and managed, for the past 160 years or so, to muddle through. At what point does it become truly existential? At what point do long-festering resentments crystallise into a quasi-national separatist consciousness? Marche is sketchy as to whether the scenarios explored this book constitute a concrete prediction or a mere thought experiment. For the most part, his tone is one of emphatic, doom-mongering certainty: ‘The future of America will involve severe drought, economic downturn, and the erosion of major coastal cities . . . No policy solutions, not even the most extreme, would prevent what I have described here’; ‘every society in human history with levels of inequality like those in the United States today has descended into war, revolution, or plague. No exceptions.’

In his conclusion, though, he makes a half-hearted attempt to mitigate the gloom, urging the US to ‘recover its revolutionary spirit’ and thereby stave off disaster: ‘It would be entirely possible for the United States to implement a modern electoral system, to restore the legitimacy of the courts, to reform its police forces, to root out domestic terrorism, to alter its tax code to address inequality, to prepare its cities and its agriculture for the effects of climate change, to regulate and to control the mechanisms of violence.’ Entirely possible, perhaps, but, given the obstacles he has so assiduously itemised, pretty unlikely. One wonders if an editorial intervention was involved, or whether it was just a matter of judicious bet-hedging. Either way, it’s hard to see how a political system so paralysed by dysfunction could enact such radical reforms.

Marche has interesting things to say on the contradictions at the heart of the US hard right psyche, whose ideology is simultaneously both ultra-patriotic and implicitly treasonous. ‘Every patriot hates his or her country,’ because the actual reality always falls short of the romantic ideal. This pathology runs deep in US society—and in plenty of others besides. It is part of the furniture of political life. If ‘The question for the United States . . . is how strong civil society is and how much that civil society can hold back the ferocious violence of its politics’, the prognosis in the medium term is continuity, despite everything.

As Marche rightly points out, the attack on the US Capitol building on 6 January 2021 was not, for all the understandable outrage, a true insurrection. The American far right is a clear and present danger, but, for the time being at least, it is probably best conceived as a disparate terrorist organisation rather than a secessionist government-in-waiting. There’s no iron law whereby contradictions must necessarily resolve themselves in a timely manner: things can be very fraught and remain so. The USA may very well disintegrate some day in the distant future; but it will limp on for now.